MUSIC Sonny Smith is sitting at a window table at the Latin with a cap on his head and a small glass of red wine and some 7-inch single cover art by Stephanie Syjuco in front of him. I get a whiskey and sit down to talk about the matter at hand: art, music, mythologies, and "100 Records," the gargantuan yet in some ways quite local show of sounds and images he's putting together at Gallery 16. One man, 100 records — with help from dozens of artists, a number of musicians, a carpenter, and an electrician, Smith not only has created a number of 45s by fictional musicians and bands, he's built a jukebox to play them.
The due date for Smith's mammoth creation is a week away, and he's in the final stages of assembling it. "I've been struggling to write down all the bios," he says, as we talk about some of his imaginary recording acts, which range from New Orleans drag queens to Utah nature lovers. "They're not Wikipedia-esque, but more like entries in a Rolling Stone Encyclopedia [of Rock & Roll]. At the beginning, I was swapping names and titles all the time — if a surf jam turned out to be a folk song, I could give it to another character. But now, with the last three [records], it has to be what it is."
What is it? An open-ended project, not solo and self-enclosed in the manner of the Magnetic Fields' 1998 69 Love Songs, where Stephin Merrit's formulaic writing reached its apex. Instead, Smith is allowing "100 Records" to form itself as he assembles it. "I've only brushed up against the edges of it all becoming interwoven," he explains over the post-work barroom din. "It's almost as if I'd rather it not be — if you read the Harry Smith Anthology [of American Folk Music], or a biography of a musician, it's enjoyable that there are so many loose ends."
The visual artists contributing to "100 Records" — including William T. Wiley, Alicia McCarthy, Harrell Fletcher, Paul Wackers, and Mingering Mike (who knows a thing or two about creating folk musical figures) — have responded to Smith's call for cover art in a variety of ways. "Alice Shaw was this character Carol Darger, and I was Jackie Feathers," Smith says, to give one country-tinged example. "Their biography is that they've gotten married and been divorced twice. We took photos together for cover art. And Jackie Feathers also has solo records with art by different artists."
When one thinks of Sonny Smith, band names don't come to mind, though his latest endeavor Sonny and the Sunsets plays wittily off of his current San Francisco neighborhood. For years, Smith has put his plain name forward rather than come up with musical monikers. "100 Records" changed all that. "What's weird is that I tried for years to come up with cool band names," he says. "I'd come up with one and think, 'That's dumb.' I've never had a knack for it. But because [the acts in "100 Records" are] fictional, it was easy to come up with band names — the names came left and right. A lot of the names that came to me I'd be happy to use as real band names. In fact, I'm trying to get a couple of the bands to become real bands."
Indeed, one of the groups on "100 Records," the Loud Fast Fools, will soon make the transition from fiction to the reality of today with a gig at the Knockout. Smith's recording process for the project has been varied. He's taken instrumental passages from obscure '50s, '60s, and '80s songs, patched and lopped them with Guitar Hero, and put vocals on top. He's recorded solo. He also knocked out dozens of songs with a multi-instrumentalist group of largely San Francisco musicians, some of whom he refers to by last name: Stoltz, Dwyer.
"There are a couple of balls-out, crazy 'Louie Louie'-type numbers, and Spencer [Owen] played drums on those," Smith says, describing the sessions. "It was some of the best drumming I've ever played with. He had these bizarre beats and fills. I thought, 'This is so perfect — this is probably how a song like "Louie Louie" happened.'"
A spaghetti-narrative project like "100 Records" is a natural for Smith, a storyteller who has documented his life in comic book form and written plays. Later in the interview, with the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You on the stereo at my apartment, he tells me that one of the first singles he bought was by Mick Jagger. "I didn't buy it because I knew anything — the guy at the record store just told me to buy it," he says. "It was a record store in Fairfax that was Van Morrison's parents' record store. He just bought the store and put his parents there to run it." This anecdote then spirals into a funny one that a member of Morrison's band told him about being stuck playing an endless version of "Domino" on a darkened arena concert stage while Morrison secretly caught a cab and a plane to L.A.
Smith has a keen eye for the mythologizing involved in music, and how a college radio DJ can build the guy down the street into a mysterious cult figure. Around the release of one album, his label pestered him to write a fake Pitchfork review, but he declined. "I'd be more into writing a fake Playboy interview," he says. Ironically, Pitchfork has come calling of late, writing about Sonny and the Sunsets.
Internet career-makers come and go. For now, Smith is more concerned with opening night of "100 Records" and the debut of his own art contribution to the show, a customized jukebox. "It's a hell of a thing, " he says, after breaking down the differences between Wurlitzers and other brands, and explaining that a rat-infested jukebox buried under stacks at Adobe Books first inspired the idea. "My friend who is a master carpenter used this German '50s jukebox as a reference. It's almost like a joke — like making a stove from scratch. Why would someone do that? But someone did." That someone is Smith, and he's hosting a jukebox party this week.
SONNY SMITH: 100 RECORDS
With music by the Sandwitches and Sonny and the Sunsets
Fri/9, 6–9 p.m. (through May 14), free
501 Third St., SF